Monday, December 17, 2018

Leinster-42 Bath-15

I often give out about European rugby's calendar for the way the competitions often change from week to week making momentum very difficult to maintain particularly for coaches; in an ideal world, I'd much rather see one tournament played to a finish before another one begins. 

That said, the way the Heineken Champions Cup is spread throughout the season makes for distinctly different ways of approaching the matches at different times of the year, which allows for a lot of intrigue.  In October for example, we have the first two rounds where most teams are simply trying to make sure their hopes aren't over before they begin. 

In January, we have the final two rounds where every bonus point is precious, the calculators come out for seedings and the all-important home quarterfinals are earned.  Then in April and May the competition reaches its business end with straight knockout rugby all the way. 

Right in the midst of all of the above are the December rounds, and due to a quirk of fate in the scheduling, these have their own special feature in that they involve all ten matches from one week being replayed the next at the other team's venue.  It's the closest this level of rugby gets to a test series, and it allows coaches a rare opportunity to right any wrongs they might have seen in the first match. 

For me, you'll find it difficult to see a better example of this process of self-correction than the Bath v Leinster back-to-back games over the past couple of weekends.  At the Rec last week, while we were heavily favoured going into it what with being champions and all, there was a perfect storm of sorts with the actual weather, our internationals having been away for a number of weeks, and most of all Bath's raising of their game from their Premiership level this season, giving us something to think about.

Yet we still managed to come away with a win, though when one of your principal season goals is to secure a fifth star over your crest, ‘managing’ isn't exactly good enough, so the brains trust at the province had to come up with a different plan for the flag-waving Aviva faithful (apologies if anyone found that reference inflammatory), and the little tweaks they made worked perfectly on Saturday evening. 

And as if part of their plan was to provide me with a cosy narrative for my writeup, our route to the bonus point, secured before half time, tracks these changes nicely. 

Try number 1 : Problem from last week - trouble at the back of our scrum.  Solution this week - start Jack Conan.

I'm sure there was a logical reason for having Dan Leavy playing number 8 at The Rec, and I'm also sure he did enough in training to demonstrate he was up to the task.  But the fact remains that the lone try Bath scored, the first score of the match, came after a scrum on our feed which he wasn't able to secure. 

The annoying thing was that this was an area which was like a rock for us all season.  While lineouts had many issues, scrum ball was pretty much taken for granted to provide front foot possession if not more.  So trying Leavy for a key game could be seen as fixing something that wasn't broken.

Well Bath scored first again this time around, from a penalty as their feisty back row of Ellis, Underhill and Louw picked up where they left off at the breakdown from the kickoff.  But once we regrouped we were able to respond and it was a nudge on the scrums that put us in position. 

I often say the job a number 8 does at the back of a scrum is one of the most under-appreciated skills in the game.   Everyone points to GAA for Rob Kearney's high ball prowess but can you think of a sport that prepares you for leaning forward, sticking your head between two arses and controlling a rugby ball at your feet while a scrum is charging ahead??? 

And once we were winning penalties thanks to Conan's talent, it meant we could have a crack at our Premiership opponents in their 22, and after a few good phases dragging their defence across the pitch, as if to prove he's far from a one-trick pony, it was Conan himself who barged through a ream of tacklers to the line.  Jamie Roberts got flak for letting him go but I'd be inclined to credit the Leinster man's leg drive and he even seemed to use the greasy surface at the end to make the last few inches to the line.

Problem identified, problem solved, reward reaped. And there was more to come. 

Try number  2 : Problem from last week - not enough power in the 12 channel.  Solution this week - Replace Noel Reid with Rory O’Loughlin.

I feel bad highlighting this because it suggests Reid had a poor outing last week, as that is far from the case.  It's just that he's a different type of inside centre, more of a “second five-eighth”, whereas Leinster and Ireland's systems are more geared to ball carriers who get us on the front foot off set pieces so with both Henshaw and Tomane (and of course Isa) unavailable, O’Loughlin was definitely a decent option, however untried at this level. 

Now the way he got this second try wasn't in the ‘crash ball’ fashion I describe - it was more from Sexton sorcery creating space for Jordan Larmour to barge his way into space and he had Rory in perfect support to finish - but his overall display caught the eye of the BT Sport panel to earn him man of the match and I certainly would have no problem with him retaining the role in January if required. 

Try number 3 : Problem last week - James Lowe didn't score a try.  Solution this week - James Lowe finds a way to score a try. 

For this one, when I say ‘problem’, I don't necessarily mean for Leinster.   James Lowe is the kind of player who contributes simply by pulling on the jersey and being in the vicinity of his team mates as both his confidence and his ability to back it up in several different areas are infectious. 

But he also seems the kind of player who doesn't like being far from the headlines; not a bad quality for your winger to have by any stretch.  So not long after Bath's number 8 with a similar surname had pulled a try back, only someone like the Kiwi would have spotted an opportunity like the one that led to our third. 

We had just rumbled through 11 phases (where incidentally I thought a clear knockon by Larmour was missed) in their 22 to go back for a penalty.  To be a little fair to Bath, the percentage call was that we'd kick to the corner to set up a maul.  But James had other ideas… 

Their hooker Tom Dunn was on the ground with the ball and had it ripped free by Lowe who gleefully brought it up to the mark in full sight of referee Pascal Gauzère where he tapped, went, and got it down before the half dozen or so sleepwalking Bath defenders knew what hit them. 

It was quite possibly the most ‘James Lowe’ try he has scored for Leinster so far, and what's more he added further panache on a similar penalty later with a little ‘fake out’ to keep the visitors on their toes. 

Try number 4 : Problem last week - Bath's back row forcing turnovers at the breakdown. Solution this week - take them out of the equation by kicking over them to someone good at getting it back. 

Adam Byrne is one of many young Leinster players who had a ‘flavour of the month’ phase before a combination of injury and advancement of others held him back but he is also one of many who blazed a trail through Leinster A's Celtic Cup winning campaign to earn a spot in the senior squad. 

From what I saw of him at Donnybrook/Energia Park earlier in the season, he still had that string to his bow of being able to take high balls kicked by his own team, a tactic we already used to good effect at the Aviva against Munster last season. 

So while it did seem odd to leave out Rob Kearney, (who as I said earlier knows a thing or six himself about catching) the introduction of Adam seemed to indicate we were going to go a more aerial route to negating the pilfering prowess of their back row. 

Over the 80 minutes there were a few duds when it came to kicking but that said, putting boot to ball always comes with a high element of risk.  Still though, there were several occasions when we retained possession and often Adam got the job done. 

With the first half clock winding down and a penalty advantage coming from a maul deep in the Bath 22, Sexton planted a beauty of a crossfield kick that the young winger wasn't favourite for in mid-flight, yet was the only possible catcher when it got there, and what's more, he even had the presence of mind to make the conversion a bit easier. 

And so we had it…40 minutes gone, try bonus point secured. Bath certainly did not regress much from the previous week, but it was clear for all to see which side had the greater resources and coaching talent to adjust their approach to the task at hand. 

The second half began almost identically to the first in that Underhill jackled a penalty shortly after the restart but by this stage three points were no good to Bath.  Looking at our tackling numbers, which had Toner leading with 22 yet our centres only 6 between them, it did look as though they tried focus their attack differently as well from last week, but it was having little effect. 

After a 7-phase set in our 22 broke down for us to fly hack it the length of the pitch, then more strong jackling by Cian Healy won us a penalty and when it was our turn to roll through 7 phases (including two strong carries from man/machine James Ryan), it was Dan Leavy going over for try number 5. 

This was around the time Storm Deirdre started to play a role.  She was rumoured to be around all day but had the decency to let us establish a lead before she really kicked in.  For the final half hour the levels of wind, rain and cold seemed to increase exponentially. 

But with that home quarterfinal as vital as ever, we couldn't afford to take our foot off the pedal even with that convincing opening weekend win over Wasps.  Underhill clawed a try back so we needed our bench to brave the conditions and find a score or two before the day was out. 

Jamison Gibson-Park was on at this stage and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts at stabbing through kicks for team mates to run onto, he got himself in support of a James Lowe break to run in our sixth try of the day, and his role in this score wasn't over yet.  As he lay on the cold sodden turf shivering while holding the ball upright, Ross Byrne judged Deirdre to perfection by slotting over the extra two points. 

I often bemoan fans who leave games too early, but in this extreme weather, the excuses for the reams of empty seats in the uncovered portions of the stand were reasonable.  The job was done in the first half, and while you could certainly find finicky faults if you really wanted to, I didn't really want to on this occasion. 

Next for Leinster are the seasonal interprovincials, but with us enjoying such a healthy lead atop Conference B in the Pro 14, it's very tempting to look beyond to the visit of Toulouse to the RDS as a pivotal game for our overall campaign. 

On the evidence I saw on Saturday there's nothing I'd want to see changing in the coaching climate at Leinster - whatever the actual weather, for now on the pitch it's looking like blue skies ahead. (yeah I know that's a bit corny but I tried to keep the weather theme going 😜) JLP 

Later this week we'll have a guest post from Keego plus our 80-word reviews on Tuesday, Harpin Points on Wednesday, Telly post on Thursday and our Leinster v Connacht preview on Friday.  Plus of course every morning our Front5 quotes & links.  Do stay tuned!

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019